Last weekend, before the nation’s attention was consumed by the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, was a busy one for Washington’s media society, and no one made more of it than Sarah Palin. First there was a stop with Greta Van Susteren at a power brunch in Georgetown, and later an appearance at a glitzy party hosted by MSNBC. In between the two, while her fellow maybe-candidate Donald Trump was getting skewered by President Barack Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Palin zipped up to a Marriott in suburban Maryland to headline a $250-a-plate fundraiser for a pro-life group, Heroic Media, best known for controversial billboards aimed at black women. By way of explaining why she had ducked out of the evening’s main event downtown, Palin reportedly told the crowd: “I choose life.”
At the end of Palin’s speech, an Orthodox rabbi named Robert Shechter stood up to give a closing benediction on behalf of a year-old group called Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, whose supporters had bought three tables at the 300-person dinner. Like Palin herself, the group piggybacked on Heroic Media’s event to stage its own Washington moment: a Shabbat retreat, or shabbaton, for Jewish supporters of Palin. Ten participants gathered at an Aish HaTorah center near the Marriott for a kosher dinner and lunch accompanied by freewheeling discussions about the Obama Administration moderated by the group’s founder, Benyamin Korn.
Korn—who is known to his oldest friends as “Buddy,” but sends his emails as “Bert,” short for Bertram, his English name—is a host on Philadelphia’s conservative WNTP talk radio station, an affiliate of the behemoth Christian broadcaster Salem Communications. At a Friday night service before the retreat, his rich baritone carried the uneven chorus of the regular Aish membership. Korn, who is 55, chanted from memory with his prayer book closed in his hands.
Korn appears to have few direct links to Palin herself—in public, he deferentially refers to the head of her political-action group, Michael Glassner, as “Mr. Glassner”—and he admits he has limited financial resources, though he says he has received support from Saul Fox, a Bay Area private-equity investor who donated last year to Tea Party candidates Sharron Angle and Tom Campbell. (Fox, en route to the Palin event from his California office, was not available for comment.) To the shabbaton participants, Korn insisted that he was not in the market for a job with Palin’s political-action group, or in a future Palin campaign. “I don’t need that tsuris,” he said. But over the past few months, Korn has become a go-to Palin soldier for cable news shows. Federal campaign records show he has never given money to Palin, but he runs a website devoted to aggregating news about her, which he says gets upwards of 10,000 hits a month, including a few dozen from Wasilla, Alaska. (“It could be Joe McGinniss,” Korn says self-deprecatingly, referring to the journalist who spent last summer living next door to the Palins while working on his book about them.)
But Korn has a long history of trying to add a Jewish voice to political movements that seemed closed to some Jews—starting with his work in the left-wing solidarity movements of the early 1980s, which frequently adopted anti-Zionist positions in sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Korn became more observant as he grew older, and in the Tea Party he sees a movement that speaks to the broader cultural concerns of a generation of newly conservative Jews who feel “mugged by reality,” following Irving Kristol’s famous formulation. “I started Jews for Sarah to create a link to a wider community,” he told his group and described his dream of building a network of Jews for Sarah chapters on the back of local Tea Party organizations around the country.
Unlike most conservative Zionist activists, Korn says he respects Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of the dovish group J Street, with whom Korn worked in the mid-2000s during a stint as associate director of the nonprofit David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. (Ben-Ami is on the group’s board.) “These people, they want to fit Israel into a left-wing paradigm but they don’t want to fit their worldview into a Jewish paradigm,” Korn said. “I know it because I lived it.” In some ways, Korn is attempting to engineer the political mirror image of what Ben-Ami has spent the last two years building: a political home for a group of conservative Jews who feel that no one speaks for them.
“Buddy” is the son of Bertram Korn, the former rabbi of Philadelphia’s Keneseth Israel, one of the oldest and largest Reform congregations in the United States, and a well-known historian of Jews in the Civil War era. His mother, Rita, was an heir to the Pep Boys auto-repair fortune; her father, Emanuel Rosenfeld, was better-known as the chain’s mascot, Manny. As an undergraduate, Korn studied journalism at Temple University and began learning Mandarin in hopes of going to China after he graduated—a nod to his father, who served as the Navy’s only Jewish chaplain in North China during World War II. But visa restrictions were still in place five years after Nixon’s landmark 1972 trip, and as a devoted Maoist—“Oh, how I long to carry manure up the mountain, and all that,” as Korn now puts it—Korn decided to forgo either Taiwan or Hong Kong and followed his Indian girlfriend to New Delhi, where he enrolled in a master’s program at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “My dad had to defend me to the congregation, that I wasn’t losing my mind in an ashram,” Korn said, in one of several phone conversations.
He was still in Delhi in 1979, when his father, only 61, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Korn returned to Philadelphia and enrolled in a doctoral program at Temple. In his off hours, he volunteered with Central American solidarity movements, going on missions to Cuba and hosting radio shows featuring radical music from throughout Latin America.
At the same time, Korn says, he began feeling his way back toward Jewish observance. For a while, his leftism coexisted peacefully with his Judaism—he launched Jews Concerned for Central Americans during this time, he says—but then, in 1985, found himself disillusioned after Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega went to Moscow immediately after the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted down President Reagan’s request for funding to the opposition Contras. “I said, ‘How can this man go to Moscow the day after we saved his neck in the U.S. Congress?’ ” Korn said. (It is a story he tells often, according to people who have known him for decades.) “So, I said, if he will betray his own people, I am finished with this, I am going to learn Hebrew and go to Israel.”
Within a few years, Korn had married an Israeli woman and fathered four children. (The pair eventually divorced; Korn, who describes himself as Modern Orthodox, has since remarried.) He established the Philadelphia chapter of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, but he then became a journalist himself, first as editor of three Jewish papers in South Florida and then, in 1994, as executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Four years later, he left to join the conservative Zionist Organization of America. “I often wonder to myself if I had come of age now rather than when I did if I would have gone off the derech,” Korn said, using the Hebrew word for “path.” “The Reform movement has now embraced Zionism, but it was not like that in the 1980s.”
At the retreat, Korn steered the conversation away from Israel toward an array of anti-Obama Tea Party staples: energy policy, health care, even Michelle Obama’s effort to reduce consumption of high-fructose corn syrup. He invited Tea Party activists Teri Adams and Adrienne Ross speak. Later, in a phone conversation, he repeated his frequent assertion that his admiration for Palin stems in part from what he sees as her ecumenical outlook, which he believes is demonstrated by the fact that her husband, Todd, is part Native American. “We want to break through some of the baseless charges made against her, separately and against the Tea Party movement, that they are racist, narrow, and bigoted, or that they come from some kind of cultural place that is hostile to Jews, blacks, and other minorities,” Korn told me.
Korn has been criticized, most recently in Salon, for being a party of one, engaged in a quixotic effort to try and lure his fellow Jews away from their well-established liberalism. But he is operating in a religious Jewish world that is more open to “values” conservatism than it once was—a universe apart from the secular Jewish world. “The earlier generation of secular Republican Jews were à la carte Republicans, making common cause with evangelical Christians on issues like foreign policy,” said Ami Eden, the editor of the JTA, who got his start working for Korn at the Exponent. “These Orthodox Jews are buying the whole conservative program, from health care on down—it’s a unified front against what they see as a secular-socialist worldview.”
And Korn isn’t shy about making use of his political journey. It’s just the kind of redemption narrative that characterizes successful conservative rhetoric today. He delighted in telling those gathered for dinner on Friday night, over brisket and chicken, that he was once a fan and follower of the late community organizer Saul Alinsky, a favorite punching-bag of the right-wing blogosphere. Mark Young, a physical-rehabilitation specialist from Baltimore, interjected, “You’ve done teshuva!” (Teshuva is Hebrew for repentance.) The group laughed. Korn gave a brief, sad smile and replied quietly, “I guess you could say that.” Then he picked up where he had left off.